It must have been thoughts of L.A. that made me involuntarily glance toward the judges for the first time. Perched behind a long table to the left of the audience, they were far from from the spotlight’s glare, and at first I could only see silhouettes. Then something in one of the silhouettes caught my eye—a tuft of beard sticking out just under the ear in a way that made me look again, a fraction of a second longer this time. Long enough to notice the shape of the part and the glisten of sweat on a high, round forehead.
It was him. Aaron Neely was at the judge’s table.
The lights turned ice-cold. Then they turned red, then black. I stopped my last joke mid-sentence. In the darkness, I heard my lips open and close, amplified by the mic. A wave of dizziness passed over me, and for a moment the floor felt as if it were pressing up hard against my feet. I blinked furiously to clear the black fog and said, “Um.”
The lights came back with a rushing sound. I blinked again.
The joke, the joke! I reached for it, but it was gone. So, I saw, was the audience. Chairs were creaking impatiently. Blood in the water. “Thank you,” I said, and left the stage to uncertain applause.
I made my way up the aisle and through the bar, past the other comics. On the way out, I hit the panic bar on the double doors as hard as I could, hoping the chuh-kung! noise was loud enough to make Fash spill his drink.
Of course Neely was in Austin. Of course he’d followed me to the place I felt safest, the place I felt sure he was too much of a big-shot to ever grace with his presence. The irony being, of course, that while I was in L.A., Austin had become just the kind of scene a guy like Neely liked.Of course Neely was in Austin. Of course he’d followed me to the place I felt safest, the place I felt sure he was too much of a big-shot to ever grace with his presence.
What Neely liked. I shuddered. What he’d liked was humiliating me in the back of his SUV, showing me how small and insignificant and utterly disposable I was to men like him, and by extension, to the industry whose highest ranks he represented. He’d shown me, in a stretch of time that felt like an eternity but probably took no more than five minutes, that I would never be in a position to make jokes, not for men like him. Because I was the joke. Set-up: me, woozy and sick from whatever I’d come down with at the smoothie bar, laughing nervously as he unzipped his pants, because I hadn’t realized, at first, what I was seeing. Heightening: still me, now frozen in shock against the safety-locked car door as understanding dawned. Punchline: me again, blood rushing to my face suddenly, a visceral, writhing discomfort that intensified in the near–silence until it felt like actual physical pain.
I was the joke, and I wasn’t even a good one. I was just something to do for fifteen minutes, a way to kill time in the back seat of his car in between appointments. He hadn’t touched me while he did it—just the edge of my dress. I’d dropped my own eyes, confused, to my lap, and waited for him to finish, which took long enough for tears to start rolling down my cheeks and falling onto my lap.
The tears were falling again now, as I stalked across the parking lot to my car, and I felt the surge of shame take me over and shake me from the inside. Why hadn’t I said something? Why had I just sat and cried, like an idiot, like a moron? It was just what he’d wanted me to do. And now I knew it wasn’t the stomach bug that had kept me riveted quietly in place, weeping, while he jerked himself off. After all, I hadn’t been sick tonight, and I’d reacted the same dumb way, with frozen, self-sabotaging terror, like a deer in the headlights. For all my bravado, in the end all it took to shut me down, drive me out of town, was one obscene man I’d mistaken for a mentor, when he didn’t even think I was funny—at least, not funny enough to outweigh the temptation of jacking off to my double-D’s.
And didn’t that prove he was right—the fact that I couldn’t take it, that I’d run away, that I was back here in Austin in the first place, instead of in a writer’s room in L.A.? For the millionth time, I thought the words, Nothing happened, he didn’t even touch me, words that echoed through my head in the half-hour after he’d finished, as we sat side by side in L.A. traffic—him, unbelievably, making small talk. I’d repeated the words like a mantra to myself to drown out his insipid chatting until I was home safe. And after all, it was the truth. It wasn’t as if he’d attacked me. It wasn’t rape. I, of all people, knew the difference. What was it, to cause me such shame?
When the car finally stopped in front of my house and the automatic door lock clicked, Neely himself told me what it was, with the unanswerable authority of someone who could take a joke; who was, in fact, in charge of deciding what constituted a joke in the first place. As I scrabbled at the door handle and stepped down to the curb, the last words I heard him say were, “Hey, come on. This is a funny story. You’ll be able to use it someday.”
There was someone following me across the dark parking lot. Someone tall, because the footsteps behind me—how long had they been there?—punctuated by the rhythmic creak of boots, suggested a lengthy stride. Passing under a lamp, I watched my shadow spring out ahead of me, and in the few feet before the circle of light faded completely I could see another shadow trembling just under my right heel. I squeezed my eyes shut for a millisecond to clear them of tears and tried to push down the thought of Neely. He couldn’t have left the judge’s table early—could he? I strained to catch a glimpse of my car in the narrow alleys between Suburbans and jacked-up pickup trucks. Without slackening my pace, I fumbled in my purse for the keys. When I found them, I slotted each jagged key between my fingers, then squeezed the keyring until it bit my palm. My Honda emerged into view. I increased my pace and heard the footsteps speed up behind me. I was almost there.
Just as I was extending my hand to unlock the door, I felt a hand on my shoulder and whirled around. A tall woman stood in front of me, her shock of hair backlit by the long-necked streetlamp: Amanda.
“Jesus, you scared me to death!”
“I’m so sorry!” she said. “I was just trying to catch up. I wasn’t trying to freak you out.”
“Mission not accomplished!” My heart was racing, the tension of the last few minutes releasing all at once. “What is it this time?” Snapping at someone, anyone, felt amazingly good. My rage at what had happened onstage was almost overpowering, and I was coldly aware that Amanda was the perfect person to take it out on. A random stranger I’d only just met, new in town, she existed completely apart from the rest of my life, was barely a person to me. I remembered Ruby’s “number-one fan” remark and felt a new surge of irritation. “Why are you suddenly everywhere I look? Are you pumpkin spice? Is it 2014 again and nobody told me?”
She fell back half a step, stunned into silence. “I-I’m sorry,” she said again. “I just saw your name in the paper, in the listings for—”
“And what, you want to tell me some more sob stories?” I said nastily. But it was me who was on the verge of tears.
Amanda noticed. She had regained her composure, that eery, wide-eyed stillness, as if she were waiting for my next move. “You’ve been crying,” she said. “What happened in there? You think you messed up?”
“I did terrific, thanks,” I said reflexively. “A regular king of comedy. Anyway, learn your terms. It’s called bombing.”
“You didn’t bomb,” she said. “You were doing great. You were the best of the night.” I stifled a sneer as she went on. “You choked a little at the end, but trust me, it wasn’t that big a deal.”
“Thanks, coach,” I sneered. Then, suddenly, just like last time, my defenses came tumbling down without warning, and I found myself telling her the truth. “Look, I didn’t finish a joke. Even if the rest of the set killed, there’s no way the judges will let me through on that mess.” The danger of tears eased off as I explained the situation, but my next thought threatened to bring them back. “And even if by some miracle I did advance to the next round—I can’t—” I wasn’t going to come back to get judged by Neely again. I couldn’t stand in the spotlight and have him stare at me the way he’d stared at me in the back of the SUV. What if he came up to me after the show, tried to talk to me?
Amanda’s eyes narrowed shrewdly. “Is this something to do with what happened to you in L.A.?” She saw my expression. “I know, I know, nothing happened in L.A. Right? Absolutely nothing. Just like nothing happened in there.” She jerked her thumb backward toward the neon sign in the distance. “Listen, I get it. You don’t want to tell anybody. But I’m not really anybody, am I? Nobody important, anyway.”
It was so close to what I’d been thinking only a moment before—that Amanda was nothing to me, no one, and therefore it didn’t matter what I said to her—that it startled me.
She saw me waver. “Let’s just go somewhere and have a drink and talk.”
The adrenaline slackening, I felt exhaustion setting in. “It’s stupid,” I said. “It’s nothing to get this upset over.”
“But you are this upset.”
She was right. I was this upset, and there was nobody in my world to talk to about it. Who was I going to tell—Kim? Fash? I couldn’t even tell Jason right after it happened, and he’d been my best friend. He’d already been so mad that I took the meeting alone, I’d thought he might blame me. But even worse than that, on a level that was itself embarrassing to admit, I’d been afraid Jason would laugh—that anyone I told would laugh. Afraid they’d see it like Neely did: a dirty joke with me as the punchline.
Looking at Amanda, I knew she wouldn’t laugh.
I sighed and unlocked the car door, gesturing for her to come around to the passenger side. She opened the door and got in, and I slid behind the steering wheel. Once the doors were closed, the silence of dead air cocooned us. I glanced around anyway, just in case, looking into the darkened cars that seemed suddenly menacing. No one was around, and we were all the way across the parking lot from Bat City, where the last few comics were shredding their fingernails under the awning as they awaited their turns.
So I told Amanda what happened in L.A.
“That’s disgusting,” she said. “He really did that?”
I nodded my head. “It got on my dress. I threw it away when I got home.” It had been my favorite audition outfit, an exceptionally flattering wrap dress. I almost gagged remembering how I’d gotten up in the middle of the night, worried that Jason might see, and stuffed it all the way to the bottom of the kitchen trash can, under used paper towels and greasy take-out containers and half a left-over rotisserie chicken that had been in the refrigerator for two weeks. Back in bed, I’d tossed and turned, and finally I got up a second time to dig it out and take it outside to the dumpster in the back alley.
“He assaulted you.”
“I don’t think it counts as assault. Does it?” I laughed weakly, but Amanda looked deadly serious. “Honestly, I think the reason he did—that—was because it’s so absurd. I mean who could I tell? The police? He jerked off in front of me. He didn’t steal my wallet.” I had wanted to see this exact look on Amanda’s face—the guys-like-that look—but now that it was happening, I felt somewhat ridiculous. “I survived.”
“Surviving isn’t living,” she said shortly. “These guys—Aaron Neely, my shithead supervisor, my asshole ex-boyfriend—they’re living. Believe me. They’re not losing any sleep over it. Wondering if it was assault or not, worrying about whether they’ll bump into you someday. They can go anywhere, do anything. That’s living.” She clenched a fist. “Neely may not even remember you. He’s probably done it to a lot of women.”
That hadn’t occurred to me. I’d been thinking of the incident in the back of the SUV as something specific to me, something to do with my particular shape and size, the plunging neckline of that particular wrap dress, or maybe even the events in my particular past. As if Neely could tell at a glance what had happened to me long ago.
“It doesn’t matter anyway, because I’m out of the competition. There’s no way I’ll advance now.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure,” she said shrewdly. “If he does remember you, he might want to keep you in the competition just to see you squirm. Guys like that”—there was that phrase again—”it’s the power trip they get off on.”
She was right. Even with my flub, he’d have enough sway on the judging panel to advance me. The rest of the judges would be locals; they almost never snagged celebrities and industry types for the preliminaries, which dragged on for weeks. Come to think of it, the prelims had been going on for some time, and I hadn’t heard anything about Neely being in town. Had he come just in time to judge my performance? I wondered if he was scoping the city for a longer-term project. I put my head in my hands. If Neely was planning to cast and shoot something in Austin, the nightmare could go on indefinitely. He’d be here semi-permanently, showing up at open mics and showcases, surrounded by Fash and other comics currying favor, impossible to avoid. Pilot idea: woman hides in mascot costume to avoid local dirtbag, zipper sticks. She
giant armadillo outfit forever. I could almost hear the velvet coffin slamming shut.
A text rattled my phone. I pulled it out and took a look. It was from Kim. “Oh my god,” I said.
“You’re right.” I slowly turned it around so Amanda could see all the exclamation points.
“I told you it was a good set,” she said, unfazed.
“Or it’s what you said—he just wants to fuck with me.” I groaned. “What am I going to do. I can’t go back in there.”
“Text her back,” she said slowly, with a thoughtful expression. “Get her to tell the people in charge that you’re not feeling well.” I looked at her skeptically. “What? It’s not a lie.”
“But I can’t do the semi-finals next week,” I said in despair. “Not with him in there. Next time I won’t even make it onstage.”
Amanda nodded. “Don’t worry about that now. I’ll take care of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Programmer. I’ve got skills, remember?” she said, wriggling her fingers like a magician. “Just leave it to me.” She opened the car door and got out. “And Dana? Don’t contact me for a few days.”
She was gone before I remembered that while she had my number, I didn’t have hers. Not that it mattered. Neely wasn’t going anywhere, at least not because of anything Amanda did. She might be a genius programmer for all I knew, but she had no idea how my world worked.
I had to text Kim something, though, and it couldn’t very well be the truth. I stared down at my phone and typed, Bad shellfish, talk tomorrow. I added three puke emojis, pushed send, and peeled out of the parking lot. I couldn’t wait to be home in bed.